Will Obama debate in Y’town?

By Bertram de Souza

“I would like Sen. Obama to meet me in Youngstown. Let’s have a debate about the issues that are important to the people of that area of Ohio and the entire state.”

With that comment, made in an interview via satellite with WFMJ-Channel 21 morning anchor Laurie Lehosky, Hillary Clinton issued a challenge to her competitor in the Democratic primary sweepstakes that he should not ignore.

Barack Obama, who has the lead and the momentum going into the ever important March 4 primary in Ohio, would be making a grave mistake by dodging Clinton.

And lest he or any of his advisers argue that there will be a debate on Feb. 26 in Cleveland hosted by NBC, here’s a reality check: Cleveland is not Youngstown. And a debate on national television is not the same as a locally sponsored gabfest in which the issues are more narrowly focused.

Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York state since 2001 and former first lady, and Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois since 2005 and a former state senator, have locked horns on many occasions, but they haven’t shared the stage in the Mahoning Valley.

Why is that important? Because unlike other regions of the state, the residents of Mahoning and Trumbull counties are diehard Democrats who have stuck with the party through thick and thin. Without a significant vote from this region, the Democratic nominee for president cannot carry Ohio.

Political instincts

So when WFMJ’s Lehosky asked Clinton about a debate here, her answer revealed the kind of political instincts people in the Valley appreciate.

“I’m focusing on the economy,” she told the reporter. “I believe strongly that we have to do everything possible to get this economy to start working for most Americans again. It’s not. It’s working for the wealthy and the well-connected.”

It’s a message that resonates in this area, as her follow-up visit to General Motors Corp.’s Lordstown assembly plant on Thursday showed. The message was designed to reassure Valley residents that she isn’t just paying lip service.

In the TV interview and during her speech at the assembly plant, the topic was one that has been on the minds of area residents for decades: The loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, due, in large part, to the federal government making it easy for American companies to open plants in countries that pay little better than slave wages.

This exodus has resulted in regions like the Valley having an even more difficult time recovering from the demise of the steel industry more than three decades ago.

After Clinton agreed to debate Obama in Youngstown, WFMJ’s News Director Mona Alexander contacted the Illinois senator’s campaign to discuss the event, which would be sponsored by WFMJ and The Vindicator. Youngstown State University agreed to host the debate on its campus.

But Alexander was told by a campaign official that Obama would be participating in the NBC debate later this month and, therefore, was unlikely to agree to one in the Mahoning Valley.

Does that mean the region should give up?

Absolutely not.

Unscripted exchange

The overriding issue in the Valley is the economy and Democratic voters deserve an unscripted exchange of ideas on reviving America’s manufacturing might, reversing the negative impact of NAFTA and GATT and addressing the growing problem of the brain drain in regions such as the Valley.

It is noteworthy that when Clinton visited the Lordstown assembly plant, she did not shy away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though it was negotiated and put in effect during the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Sen. Clinton contended that the Bush administration has failed to implement many of the provisions in the agreement that would take away the advantages countries like Mexico now enjoy.

Obama must know that his opponent has made great inroads in the Valley with her visit to the assembly plant.

He needs to think long and hard before he dismisses Clinton’s “ ... meet me in Youngstown” challenge.

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